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Ukrainian champions find refuge in German handball league

Lorenz Schalling
August 29, 2022

Zaporizhzhia has become a household name as Europe's biggest nuclear power plant is threatened by fighting in Russia's war on Ukraine. Meanwhile, the city's championship handball team are back on the court – in Germany.

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HC Motor Zaporizhzhia player Danylo Osadchyi (third from left) takes a shot on goal
HC Motor Zaporizhzhia have played friendlies against first-division sides to prepare for their season in GermanyImage: Jürgen Augst/Eibner/IMAGO

Ukrainian handball team finds home in Germany

When it became clear that Russia's invasion had made it impossible for Ukraine's top handball league to resume operations this season, the managers at Ukrainian serial champions HC Motor Zaporizhzhia began looking for ways to keep the team on the court. Part of the idea was to help bring a semblance of normality to the players, whose city is home to a major nuclear plant and has been one of the hardest hit by Russian attacks.

They found what they were looking for in Germany, as the organizers of 2. Handball Bundesliga agreed to allow HC Motor Zaporizhzhia join the league as a "guest" team for the 2022-23 season.

One league, two tables 

HC Motor have essentially become the 20th team in Germany's topflight, playing a 38-game schedule – just like their opponents. However, there is one key difference; Zaporizhzhia's results will have no bearing on the official standings. However, in addition to the official table, determining the champions, promotion and relegation, the league will maintain a second set of standings incorporating HC Motor's results. 

Gintaras Savukynas, head coach of HC Motor Zaporizhzhia
Gintaras Savukynas has been HC Motor Zaporizhzhia's head coach since July 2020Image: Freund/Nordphoto/IMAGO

"In Ukraine, we don't have such a high sporting level as here, because the other teams don't work professionally," HC Motor coach Gintaras Savukynas told DW. 

Several top players left the club after the war began, and two Belarusian players were pressured to stop playing for the club – forcing Savukynas to bring in a few players from the reserves to fill out his roster. 

However, Zaporizhzhia, which reached the round of 16 in the Champions League back in 2013, will also have competitive matches to look forward to. This season, HC Motor will be competing in the EHF European League, the second-highest club competition in Europe.

"Our sporting goal is to do well in the European League. And for that, of course, the season in the (German) second division will help us a lot," said Savukynas. 

He added that this experience will help the young players in the team in particular, "because it's a strong league where we can learn a lot and get better." 

Project 'close to our hearts' in Düsseldorf 

The Ukrainian handball players and their families have found a new homebase in the western German city of Düsseldorf. Like the German handball league organizers, the city's managers were only too happy to be of assistance.

"HC Motor Zaporizhzhia is a project that is very close to our hearts and is a positive signal to all Ukrainian refugees in Düsseldorf. Our city with its handball-crazy fans will welcome this top-class team with open arms and provide a real home game atmosphere," said Burkhard Hintzsche, the city of Düsseldorf director of sports. 

There is already a large Ukrainian community in the city, which has taken in more than 9,000 refugees from Ukraine since the war began. 

The Zaporizhzhia players and their families are being housed in apartments paid for by the city of Düsseldorf – just as the city has for all of the other Ukrainian refugees. 

Alexander Weck of Germany's Bergischer HC attempts a shot
Alexander Weck of Germany's Bergischer HC goes for goal against the HC Motor Zaporizhzhia defenseImage: Freund/Nordphoto/IMAGO

"We were welcomed with open arms in Düsseldorf and are very grateful to be able to continue to play despite the terrible war in our homeland," HC Motor manager Dimitriy Karpushchenko told DW.  

The city is also lending the team its assistance in terms of organizing things like training facilities, home games, transportation and marketing. 

Representing Ukraine on the court 

But despite all the support in Germany, events back home continue to weigh heavily on the players and their families. 

"I miss everyone very much, I'm very worried about each of them," said Ukrainian international Aleksandr Kasai. "I try to communicate with them constantly by phone and video." 

But now the team are eagerly awaiting their first match, when they open the second-division season against Bayer Dormagen on Wednesday. A crowd of around 10,000 spectators is expected to turn out to the PSD Dome for what will be a double header. Following that game, defending first-division champions SC Magdeburg are to face cup winners THW Kiel in the DHB Supercup – the first silverware of the new German handball season.

Ukrainian refugees will be offered free admission, so that they, like the players and staff of HC Motor Zaporizhzhia have the opportunity to forget the horrors that continue back home – at least for the duration of a handball match. 

"I hope we will show beautiful, emotional and real Ukrainian handball," Kasai said: "So that our fans will like our game and attend every match."

Fears of Zaporizhzhia radiation leak

This article was translated from German.